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Hailing a Shelby County war hero

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Shelby County aviator Robert D. Kemper died 40 years ago in a training accident, but an effort is being made to ensure memory of his courage doesn’t die too.

By Ryan Conley

Robert D. Kemper was considered a Shelby County hero long before he was killed in the line of duty in 1971, and 40 years later, efforts are being made to keep that memory alive forever.
Work is under way to memorialize the U.S. Navy officer known as “Boo Boo,” who flew 256 combat missions as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War and was killed while saving another aviator during a states-side training flight in 1971.
Kemper, a Shelbyville native, is easily one of the most highly-decorated military sons to come out of the county, earning a coveted Combat “V” Commendation Medal and a pair of Distinguished Flying Cross medals, among 46 Navy citations he received.
But more than that, Bob Kemper was simply a good man, family and friends say. And one of those closest to him is working to establish a permanent cyber-tribute to his fallen comrade.
Navy Cmdr. (Ret.) Hugh Magee, who flew multiple missions with Kemper in Vietnam, has launched a memorial page to his squadron-mate on the military Web site called TogetherWeServed.com. Magee, a resident of Lemon Grove, Calif., is seeking local help to fill in details of his friend’s life.
“We were best buds, and roomed together on the [aircraft] carrier, and flew a lot of combat missions together,” said Magee, who retired from the Navy in 1974 after a 22-year career. “To me, he was a hero. I just want to keep his memory alive.”

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Kemper was a hero to many in Shelby County as well. Following his graduation from Shelbyville High School in 1952, he became one of a select group of locals to earn an appointment to a military college, graduating from the Naval Academy in 1956.
“He always wanted to go in the Naval Academy, and when he got the appointment, we were all so proud of him,” said Kemper’s sister, Wanda Perkins of Shelbyville, the youngest and lone surviving sibling of six brothers and sisters born to Byron and Mary Hester Kemper.
Perkins, five years younger than Bob, remembers her brother fondly. She recalls that when Kemper came home on leave, the family would meet him at the train station. Once, while regaled in full dress uniform, Kemper escorted his sister to the annual cotillion while she was still in high school.
“All the girls loved his uniform, but he didn’t dump me,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a fond, fond memory.
“He was an encourager; he made you feel special. I thought it was just directed at me, but I found out from the young men that trained under him, they felt the same way.”
Perkins’ son, William H. Perkins Jr., is also in the Navy, and is stationed at the same California-based Naval Air Station, Lemoore, that Kemper once called home.
“He absolutely adored his uncle Bob,” Perkins said of her son.
Kemper was also special to Sharon Hackworth of Shelbyville, who was his second cousin. Hackworth, who is married to former Shelbyville Mayor Neil Hackworth, was 16 years younger than Kemper.
“I would sit on his lap and listen to him tell stories about what he was doing,” she said. “We were so proud of him, flying all of those missions. And my father [William Kemper] loved him like a brother. He was crushed when he heard Bobby had died.”

Kemper, who attained the rank of commander, was killed on March 3, 1971, during a training flight out of Naval Air Station Meridian in Mississippi, where he was stationed. According to reports, Kemper was working with a young aviator when the T2J Buckeye training jet they were flying encountered nasty weather.
Details of such incidents are classified, Magee said, but he is confident in his assessment of what happened.
“The airplane started to ice-up, like in a thunderstorm-type situation,” said Magee, who flew 247 combat missions. “It got so heavy that he couldn’t maintain his altitude, even at full power.
“He knew they wouldn’t make the runway, so he initiated his student’s ejection himself. Then he ejected but was too close to the trees.”
Magee, who earned a Purple Heart after his fighter jet was shot down over the Gulf of Tonkin in June 1966, said there is no doubt in his mind that Kemper’s actions saved his trainee, who survived.
“He actually gave up his life to save his student,” Magee said. “You’ve got to understand, there was just a few seconds to react. It was a self-sacrificing situation. In keeping with the Naval Aviator’s Creed, I believe he sacrificed his life for his shipmate.”

For Kemper’s mother, the tragic accident was a serious blow – one that could only be overcome by faith, Perkins said. Byron Kemper died at the age of 58 in July 1938, just weeks before Perkins was born, and when Bob was only 5. Their mother later married A.T. Arnold, but he also died prematurely.
“She told me, ‘I have buried two husbands, but that didn’t equal this,’ ” Perkins said of Kemper’s crash.
“But she would tell you that the Lord got her through it,” she continued of her mother, who later became a nursing supervisor at the Mason Home hospital. “She said he always found a way to get her through it.”
Another Shelby County resident who was saddened by the loss was Col. Harland Sanders, the founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant franchise.
“He was distraught, because Bob was his hero,” Magee said.
On the memorial Web page is a pair of photos featuring Kemper and Sanders. One shows them eating – not fried chicken but fried fish caught by mutual friend Paul Johnson of Shelbyville, according to Perkins. All three attended First Christian Church at one time, she said.
Kemper’s widow, Carol, never remarried and died in 1996. They had three daughters: Pam Rodgers, now of Atlanta; Sharon Fritz, of Charlotte, and Laura Glass, also of Atlanta.
Fritz said she was 8 years old when her father died, so she doesn’t have many direct memories about him. But her mother put together a scrapbook that has kept his spirit alive.
“I think it is terrific what Hugh is doing,” she said of the memorial Web page.

Kemper’s death prompted the formation of one of the largest chapters of the Navy League, a civilian-backed educational organization aimed at supporting military efforts. Marine Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Ron Van Stockum, who had just moved back to Shelby County, was given the task in 1971 of launching the Robert D. Kemper chapter of the Navy League.
“I was made president, and we managed to get so many members, it was one of the largest chapters in the country,” Van Stockum said, estimating membership at 150. “I never met him [Kemper], but I am sure he is like the rest of the naval aviators I knew: first-class gentlemen.
“I have always had a great respect and admiration for naval aviators, particularly those that flew off carriers. I figured if they could pilot a plane to begin with, and then take off and then land again on the small landing strip of a carrier, that person is multi-talented.”
Kemper was buried in Grove Hill Cemetery on March 6, 1971, a date that would have marked his 38th birthday. Hundreds attended his funeral.
His memorial page can be viewed at http://navy.togetherweserved.com/profile/405602.
“He was a hero to me in life, and remains so today,” Magee wrote on the memorial page. “He is sorely missed.”